Books: In conversation with author Anuradha Roy
Sara, a young Indian woman, leaves home for the first time for university in England. It is a strange, new world of attending lectures on The Glass Menagerie, befriending an Asian girl who must come to grips with her queerness and experiencing autumn and winter snow. In a fit of nostalgia for home, she goes shopping for ingredients to cook Indian food and is accosted by a man who empties a half-drunk can of beer on her head shouting, ‘F****** c***, your curry stinks.’ She falls down, rice scattering over the pavement, stunned by this act of racism.
Sara is the narrator in Anuradha Roy’s elegantly crafted novel, The Earthspinner, which weaves together the lives of Elango, a potter who dreams of a mythical horse and is driven to give shape to it—an act that unleashes a chain of fateful events—and a young woman in the neighbourhood who learns pottery from him, developing a complicated relationship with her teacher as she embraces adulthood.
Moving between India and England, the novel sends out a gentle, yet powerful message about fanaticism against reason and humaneness. While neither the time nor the place in which this story is set is clearly defined, we learn Sara is in school when Bishen Singh Bedi is captain of the Indian cricket team. That’s several decades before Virat Kohli. “Yet, the process of self-discovery and the ensuing pain is the same for a young person, whether then or now,” says Roy, speaking to HT Brunch from her home in Ranikhet.
Discrimination and the violence it frequently evokes is a theme that underpins the novel’s most defining moments. Another central character, Elango, a potter who teaches the young Sara the craft, is also the victim of violence in an incident that upturns the lives of nearly everyone in the novel and leaves Sara deeply impacted. “At home in India, Sara is a somewhat privileged insider. The move she makes to Britain finds her facing the difficulty of being discriminated against,” Roy says. “Elango, too, moves between classes. Identities are always fluid. And yet people use a particular identity to pin others down and exercise violence.”
Roy says she wrote the wrecking of the terracotta horse made by Elango to convey the destruction of the idea that we are secular. We may aspire to harmony, but it is only a myth. The core idea for The Earthspinner stemmed from the image of a potter and his dream of a horse that came to occupy Roy’s thoughts. Her writing, she says, almost always starts as a set of images that are powerful to her for reasons even she cannot fathom, and over a lot of drafting and redrafting, it becomes a narrative over time.
“I set out to probe the images that come to me, trying to discover if there is a bigger story there,” she explains. “The horse has a central and powerful place in Indian mythology. In South India, where I have spent time, there is a tradition of potters making terracotta horses for village deities and leaving an array outside temples. I delved deeper into the potter and his dream. What if he decided to make that horse?” The question led Roy to create Elango, the potter who becomes obsessed with the mythical creature. Eventually, the horse changes from sacred to secular because he makes it for the woman he loves.
The act of creation
Roy herself is a potter and has been passionate about the craft since her twenties. Did she know an Elango? “Not in one person,” she says. “Because of my interest in pottery I’ve met both traditional craftspeople and studio potters. All of them are him and yet he is none of them.”
Parts of the novel would seem to reflect Roy’s own life. “None of these things happened to me,” she says. Providing glimpses into her inspiration, she adds, “I use fiction to explore themes that have become important to me as a result of my own life. I did lose my father when I was very young. But Sara is not me. I created her character as a young woman who goes through the loss of a parent and tried to explore what happens to grief in that context.”
It is the same with the settings of her novels. “I draw from the places I’ve been in. Then I order them within the framework of my fiction. Everything that has happened influences my choice of what I write about,” she says.
Roy’s love of dogs—she has four of them—is evident in her novels. In The Earthspinner, Chinna is a central character, the only one who does not judge and distinguish people by their identity. “Chinna embodies the classic Indian stray dog who belongs to everyone and nobody,” Roy says. “In our cities, every locality has a Chinna. Some become more beloved than others. He’s based on a lot of dogs I have known. They are abused and victims of so much violence. And yet you can’t imagine our streets without them, their genial, anarchic presence.”
In The Earthspinner, Roy frequently uses the act of creating a pot or pitcher as a metaphor for life. “If you compare pottery with writing you can draw an infinite number of parallels between the two,” she says. “Pottery begins as a pail of slop. From that, through many stages and a lot of thought and work, it becomes a beautiful vase. Writing is much like that.”
In search of time
While Roy had been penning down bits and pieces of this novel over several years, she spent more than two years giving it its final form and shape, writing in the middle of the pandemic and lockdown. “It helped me stay sane during this time,” she says. “I could come back to it every single day.”
Whether it’s writing or pottery, arts and crafts require slabs of uninterrupted time. “I have to really fight for that,” she says. “I hear about writers, mostly men, who lock themselves up for a year and get packed sandwiches and then they write something incredible. That’s never happened with me. Nor to any other woman, I would think. There are a hundred other things demanding your attention. You have to be fierce about finding time and be ready to give up things that tempt you away from your writing.”
Roy has been writing ever since she could form words. “It’s something I did instinctively. Even before I could start school, my mother gave me a hardbound notebook to keep me occupied and I wrote small poems and five-line stories.” Her love of writing and books drew her to publishing as a career. “I wanted to make books which are objects as well. Publishing combines all the things I wanted in a job. It had to do with the mind, I could interact with the interesting, inspiring people who wrote, and I could make something aesthetic.” At the publishing house Roy runs with her husband, Rukun Advani, she handles all the book designs and works on the covers.
Does she have any advice for aspiring young writers? “Read,” she says. “The more good writing you read, the better your writing will become.”
The writer is a Bengaluru-based senior writer who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several major mainstream publications in the past.
From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021
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